Australian research is vital to our future

Research underpins not just our economic development but also our community development. Australian research achievements should be celebrated, not forgotten, even as we seek answers to critical questions about funding.

Research is a prerequisite for an innovative and highly skilled national economy. It also plays a role—hard to put a price on, and often unpredictable—in the development of our community and our national identity.

Ubiquitous in conversations about research in Australia is an emphasis on that which has value—economic value, specifically, which is well-aligned with the growing perception of universities as businesses. This trend has helped us refine some of the questions we ask about funding research: Where does the money come from? Who receives it? And for what?

The pandemic has impacted university funding. This has us asking those questions with increased urgency. But they are rarely resolved to anybody’s satisfaction—while some universities warn of diminishing research capacity that may not be easily recovered, other commentators insist that universities are posting massive surpluses despite the pandemic; there are those who insist the government must make up the shortfall, and others who are certain commercialisation is the only answer.

If we look to our past for guidance, it’s clear that research will be vital to our future. Australia has a robust and laudable history of contributing to the global good through our inventions and discoveries. We’ve been responsible for environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes like green steel, Nobel-winning medical discoveries like the bacterial cause of stomach ulcers, and game-changing technological inventions, like Wi-Fi. Research doesn’t only enable us to remain competitive economically. It also enriches our communities for the broader social good, and we should make an effort to acknowledge, celebrate and value it.

In response to these pressing questions about research funding, there has been a long period of high anxiety and much commentary with little action: the emphasis has instead been on supporting vocational education. Little wonder, as Australia is hardly exempt from the global skills shortage, and our job market is increasingly tight.

But now we’ve at last seen the announcement of $2.2 billion committed to research commercialisation. The bulk of the funding is the Australia’s Economic Accelerator program, which targets the gulf between proof-of-concept and commercialisation and requires that any project align with one of the six national manufacturing priorities, sending a clear message about the role research is expected to play in Australia’s future.

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